Review: Cantores Olicanae concert – My love dwelt in a Northern land, St John’s Church, Ben Rhydding, Saturday, March 16, 2024

Cantores Olicanae had chosen a demanding programme of largely a capella works for their spring concert last Saturday. The choir was in confident voice with notably good balance between the parts and spirited singing throughout. As often at these concerts the singing was paired and contrasted with spoken words from members of the choir, always well-chosen and delivered. On Saturday we were also treated to a number of solos from the flute of Lizzie Gurney – familiar as in Elgar’s Salut d’amour and Grieg’s Norwegian dance as well as less-well known pieces of Sibelius – her beautiful mellow-toned legato was a striking addition to the evening. She was well-supported as ever by the piano of Robert Sudall, who also contributed a moving performance of Peter Maxwell-Davies’ Farewell to Stromness.

The concert had begun with the Elgar part song that gave its title to the evening, convincingly sung by the whole choir and followed by a pleasingly simple setting for the upper voices by Elizabeth Poston of the folk song The water of Tyne. John Ireland’s beautiful The hills, which deserves to be programmed more often, was given an excellent performance as were the two homophonic Marian anthems – the Ave Maria by the Latvian Rihards Dubra and Totus Tuus by the Polish Henryk Górecki – which, aside from the occasional problem of balance in the fortissimo passages, rounded off the first half well.

The two big challenges in the programme were James Macmillan’s So deep - here the main melody (Burn’s My love is like a red, red rose) was both effective and affecting but the accompanying drones and particularly the random repetitions failed to convince – and Ēriks Ešenvalds’ Stars, which received a more assured performance, enhanced by sparkling synthesiser chords. That this choir should attempt such repertoire is a great tribute to the confidence engendered by the choir-training skills of their new musical director, James Savage Handford. Really excellent performances of the Ubi Caritas and Northern Lights by Ola Gjeilo and particularly of The Deer’s cry by Arvo Pärt showed the appreciative audience what this much improved choir is capable of.